To give thanks on this Thanksgiving week to a kinder, gentler NFL of yesteryear and to my long-suffering loyal readers, today I offer two remarkable stories from the too-good-to-be-true decade of the 1950s:
• Who is the only person to ever play in the NBA and the NFL?
• Who is the only person, on his first field goal attempt, to break the NFL record for longest kick?
The first man many of you might know, the second man hardly any of you will know.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bud Grant, 88, and Bert Rechichar, 85.
Most remember Grant as the longtime coach of the Minnesota Vikings who was 0-4 in Super Bowls. And he was an all-time great on the sidelines — a 158-96-5 regular season record in 18 seasons in Minnesota, with 11 NFC Central titles in a 13-year span.
But everything about Grant before he became Vikings coach is even more extraordinary.
A three-sport athlete at the University of Minnesota — football, basketball and baseball — Grant was selected in the fourth round of the NBA draft by the Minneapolis Lakers and in the first round of the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
He left school early to join the Lakers for the 1949-50 season. His season started with a half-court buzzer beater on his first shot; his season ended as part of the Lakers’ NBA championship.
After two seasons averaging 2.6 points a game as a Laker, he joined the Eagles in 1951, foregoing George Mikan for Chuck Bednarik and becoming the first — and still only — man to play in the NBA and the NFL.
At defensive end in his NFL rookie season, Grant led the Eagles in sacks. He switched to wide receiver the next season, finishing second in the league with 997 yards on 56 receptions.
He jumped to the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1953, where he led the Western Conference in receptions three times in four seasons; he also intercepted a CFL-record five passes in a playoff game Oct. 28, 1953.
In 1957, Grant became the CFL’s youngest coach in history, at age 29; in 10 seasons, he led the Blue Bombers to six Grey Cup appearances and four titles. He then became Vikings coach in 1967, leading them to four Super Bowls. He’s in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This all sounds like fiction, except it’s fact.
(Column Intermission: Gannon University men’s basketball team is off to a 1-2 start with Stepson of Destiny Isaiah Eisendorf — 11.0 points, 7.0 rebounds a game — looking a bit sluggish at times. If he wants Thanksgiving dinner, he’d better pick up his game.)
Then there’s fact that sounds like a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” entry.
Say hello to Bert Rechichar.
I discovered Rechichar’s tale by accident online from a wonderful 1997 Baltimore Sun story by the late, great John Steadman.
Rechichar was a hard-hitting defensive back who once, after tackling Heisman Trophy winner Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, told him, “Listen, Cassady, this ain’t Ohio State. This is the National Football League and we tear out your eyeballs.”
During the Baltimore Colts’ Sept. 27, 1953 season opener at home against the Chicago Bears, Rechichar, a second-year player, returned an interception 36 yards to tie the game, 7-7. Then, with four seconds left in the first half, Rechichar was headed to the locker room as Colts kicker Buck McPhail lined up a long field goal attempt. But Colts assistant Otis Douglas had a second thought and called for Rechichar to come back and try the kick instead of McPhail. Rechichar trotted back onto the field — not even knowing how long the kick would be — and told holder Tom Keane, “Get that ball down because I got to go to the bathroom.”
The kick — his first-ever attempt in the NFL — was good. From 56 yards. It broke a 19-year-old NFL record for longest field goal (Lions’ Glenn Presnell, 54 yards in 1934) and remained the record for 17 years (Saints’ Tom Dempsey, 63 yards in 1970).
It gave the Colts a 10-7 lead en route to a 13-9 win. And Rechichar, thankfully, got to the bathroom in time.
Q. While reading your last installment online, a turkey coupon popped up in the middle of your column. Have you sold out to Madison Avenue or was this a sign from a higher authority regarding the quality of the second half of your essay? (J.B. Koch; Macomb, Mich.)
A. I don’t much care for the tone of your inquiry.
Q. If Donald Trump engaged Dick Vitale in a debate, how long would it take for either of them to realize that the other was speaking? (Bob Lynch; Albany, N.Y.)
A. If Trump-Vitale were the oratorical version of the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel, I don’t think either man survives.
Q. Do you believe in the future of daily fantasy sports? Is it here to stay or is it the hula hoop? (Thomas Krause; Indianapolis)
A. Three words for you: fantasy synchronized swimming.
Q. Is it true the new Louisville fight song will be Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls”? (Ron Colter; Alexandria)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
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